The cat dies without fanfare, slipping under our wheels as soundlessly as a drowning man submerged by the terminal wave. We know immediately what has happened; we are driving, yes, and there is a storm, but the texture of the animal's death is unmistakable. A crunch of bone, the sickening yield of flesh that we don't so much hear as feel. Marie's hands go white on the wheel and she pulls over.
"Oh no," she says, over and over, as we get out of the car to inspect the thin grey tom now sprawled, unquestionably dead, behind the back passenger-side wheel. Its haunches and belly are obliterated, pulped entrails smearing the asphalt.
"No collar," I say, looking to Marie. "It's okay, honey, you couldn't have stopped. It wasn't your fault." I expect to find sadness or panic on her face, but there's only outrage.
"I know that, Mom." she spits. "I told you I didn't want to do this!"
She's tired from her softball game last night and always hates driving in inclement weather. But my sponsor says that I have to put my recovery above all things. I'd lost my license a year ago, in the usual way, and I don't often go to early meetings because mornings are still a struggle. Even nearly two months dry, before ten in the morning it's as if the distilled power of every hangover I've ever had manifests itself in a moral and existential brittleness so profound I can barely leave my bed. Marie tends to me before she leaves for school, bringing coffee and sometimes an elaborate breakfast, like a little skillet of shakshuka, eggs floating on the top like cloudy eyes. I've been sleeping on the couch for months—my bedroom still scorched and sooty—and this morning was the first time I woke up without the fog of that phantom headache. But I was sick with restlessness and aimless need.
"I need a meeting," I told Marie, rapping on her door and startling her awake.
"Mom, please, later," she protested, still bleary. "I'll take you to a later one."
But I insisted.
In the car, we have a plastic Safeway bag stuffed to the gills with other plastic Safeway bags, which only Marie ever remembers to bring into the grocery store and reuse. I put two bags over each arm while Marie holds another open before me. I reach down to the road and pick up what is left of the animal. Its body is warm and through the plastic I feel the delicate paws, the intricate physiognomy of its small head, the slick of its ruined midsection. I deposit it in the bag Marie holds and she runs over to the sidewalk, where a tall laurel hedge blocks a view of the home behind it.
"We need to bury him. We can't just leave him out here," she says.
"Marie, no, we just need to call the city. Just leave it on the sidewalk, they'll come and get it. This stuff happens sometimes. It's alright."
What I am trying to tell her is that all of us will meet our own ends through means internal or external, a matter over which we have little control: a split second of inattention behind the wheel on an icy road, tumors blooming irrevocably on liver or lung. This cat flung in our path by the whims of the fates, now delivered from the mortal world. They say in AA that you have to accept the things you cannot change, and I've started to believe it.
For instance, we will never again live in a reality where I didn't nearly burn my daughter and I in our beds. It will never not have happened, and we both have to accept that. That night two months ago, I was in a soupy kind of half-sleep, curled up in my stinking sheets, when suddenly my daughter's face was before me, thrust forward from the darkness. It took me a moment to realize that the miasma in the room was not a psychic malady, but actual smoke.
"Come on!" Marie shouted and dragged me bodily from the bed. I couldn't see the cigarette in the melting plastic ashtray, atop the vanity, now aflame. But I knew it was there, abandoned to its own terrible work when I passed cleanly from consciousness on a tide of cheap chardonnay.
As we reeled out of the house that night, smoke rising into the ash-bright sky, I felt in my pounding heart, for the first time, a riot of unexpected clarity. There was Marie, my diligent only child, holding my purse and her backpack, a photo album, and a cherished embroidered pillowcase my mother had made for me. She—my strange, sensitive girl who cried for a week after the tsunami in Japan, who couldn't stop picturing the elementary school that was lost under the unthinkably mighty force of it, all those little bodies sunk deep into the black mud—was expressionless, and as tired as I'd ever seen any person be. She was sixteen, and she rescued everything of value, and she was just so tired.
I'd met her father when I worked at a tapas bar in college. He loved me in an ardent but non-specific way, making it quite simple for him to leave me for a flight attendant when Marie was six months old. Before I fell pregnant, we would race around town after my shifts at the bar, taking shots of Jägermeister all night until everything was a heady blur. There was a pervasive dichotomy of feeling in those hazed evenings: at once everything lay luminously before us for the taking, but also, we felt that nothing we did really mattered. I hadn't known then that it was possible to catastrophically derail a life so early and in such a brief period of time, or that some habits are very, very hard to break.
As the firemen hosed down my bedroom on the night of the fire, I told Marie I'd stop, for good. I wanted her to worry about developmentally appropriate things: boys, the deathlessness of high school gossip, college admissions. I wanted her to be anguished by her own dumb hungry body, and not much else, in the way of normal teenagers. She'd once had an almost empathic curiosity about the ills of the world; she'd come home after trips to the school library, weeping, and tell me about a sound so loud and piercing it could kill people; about Chernobyl and all those ruined anatomies, scorched from the inside out; about the purely theoretical Euthanasia Coaster, a roller coaster designed by some artist that would kill its passengers with merciless g-force and cerebral hypoxia.
This girl, my girl, shouldn't be pulling her mother—a coward so intolerant of reality that she blunted her exposure to it with every available tool—from a smoking bedroom and then stand there with a face as impassive as a closed door. I knew that night that Marie's exhaustion was a byproduct of my addiction, and that if I kept on, it would methodically leech away at her until she was just an aching scrap of a person, almost nothing at all.
This is all to say that I had every reason to want to go to my meeting this morning. And, also, that I should not have woken her.
I tell Marie again that we can just leave the cat on the sidewalk, and call Animal Control.
"Just shut up," she says flatly, unmoved. "We can't leave him out here like garbage. I'll do it myself."
She crouches and starts scrabbling at the muddy ground under the hedge. The soil is cabled with roots and large stones. Her hands swell and become a mottled red. I stand there, ensnared in absolute paralysis, unable to move. She works with increasing ferocity, slinging dirt and rocks behind her onto the sidewalk. Finally, she takes the bag and places it in the shallow crater she's cleared below the hedge, tenderly but without ceremony, like she's tucking a child into bed.
Back in the car, Marie looks leaden and intractable, as if her every organ has become something monstrous and immeasurably heavy to bear. Please, I want to tell her, I'm sober now, it's not supposed to be like this!
I have fifty-seven days without drink. I don't know my daughter better or truer because of it, but I am trying. My sponsor keeps saying that getting well requires putting ourselves first, for once. But she's not a mother and she doesn't understand: I've always been selfish.
Marie's hands are on the wheel again, mud-smeared and trembling.
"I'm sorry," I say to my daughter. "I don't want to go to the meeting anymore. Let's just go home."
Marie laughs, blank-faced.
"Always you, Mom," she says, starting the car. "Always about you."
When Marie was four, I took her tide-pooling on a rocky coastal beach where she stepped on a sea urchin. She howled as I carried her to the greengrocer on the boardwalk, where a kind man sat her on a stool by the register and submerged her foot in a bowl of milk, her blood marbling up to its white surface. As Marie drives us home in silence, I wonder for the first time what she remembers of that day: the shock and betrayal of her injury? How the grocer patted her small hands as I gently plucked the spines out, one by one? It occurs to me only now that I've never bothered to ask her.
Title image "Counting the Days" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.